Music

Divas Are Not In Fashion

Irina Bagauri
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Interview with Anita Rachvelishvili

Two months ago, in Berlin, Anita Rachvelishvili performed with a host of other world-renowned performers in Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride, led by conductor Daniel Barenboim. Her name has been seen on the playbills of the world's leading theatres for a long time now. But for lovers of lyrical music, she still remains the main hero of an unbelievable story that happened four years ago: on 7 December 2009, the season of one of the world's most renowned opera houses, La Scala in Milan, was triumphantly opened by a very young and absolutely unknown Georgian vocalist performing the role of Carmen, the most sensual female character in opera. Four years later, Anita Rachvelishvili recalls the story like this:

"You are right, things do not usually happen like that – I proved lucky to open the season of La Scala at the age of 25, which was something that had never happened before in the history of the opera house. That happened not only owing to good luck, but also to my diligence during my studies at La Scala's Academy. While still a student I went to an audition that was being conducted by Barenboim, hoping to receive the small part of Mercedes, though I instead got the role of Carmen. Many Italians were asking me whether I realized what had happened; everyone was surprised that I kept so calm. The reason for my calmness, however, was that for months I had worked very hard on this role and was very well prepared for the opening night. In hindsight, those days seem like something magical and I think that they will remain the most unforgettable episode of my life."

Her performance as Carmen was broadcast live in many different countries. Consequently, Anita gained the affection of a vast audience all at once. One might also assume that all the other singers were envious of the lucky mezzo soprano that night because she was performing on a stage with two of the most handsome males in opera – the tenor Jonas Kaufmann and the bass-baritone Erwin Schrott.

Jonas Kaufmann and Anita Rachvelishvili in Carmen. La Scala, 2009.
"I am always lucky with colleagues. Both Kaufmann and Schrott are very nice people and genuine gentlemen. They helped me immensely in preparing for the role. They treated me like a child, took care of me and it was a pleasure to be with them, both at work and outside the theatre.

"Among those whom I have worked with, Jonas Kaufmann is a paragon of talent, professionalism, and collegiality. He is a very straightforward, generous and interesting person. The same holds true for Daniel Barenboim: he is a genius and the most interesting and amazing musician I have ever met."

Today, Anita Rachvelishvili is an established and successful artist. Apart from performing on the world's most prestigious stages, she is a very active person who never shuns expressing her civil position, participating in a number of charity and social projects, and speaking several European languages. All this, she says, is necessary for a modern artist:

"Today, many things are required from singers. Vocal and musical skills are not sufficient qualities. Knowing languages is necessary for our profession. I perform in various theatres and believe that it is a shame for a person who travels so extensively not to speak different languages. I mastered Italian within two or three months of arriving in Milan. I studied English, French and Spanish while traveling.

"Our profession requires huge physical and psychological endurance. Communication skills, interaction with colleagues as well as the audience, are also of great importance. I am often told that I am comfortable to work with because I am not a complicated person. I try to keep up with my colleagues, and make the working environment a pleasant one; I thus create comfort for me too.

"The diva-like behavior that existed before, which was a source of numerous conflicts among colleagues, is considered very outdated today. Those grumpy prima donnas still exist, of course, but such people already find it very difficult to sign contracts and cooperate with theatres. No one wants to work with them any longer."

The list of theatres she has performed in is very long and impressive. The reviews her performances have received in the world's press are also impressive.

"The most appreciative public is, perhaps, in New York. The audience of the Metropolitan Opera is very familiar with lyrical music and can make correct assessments. The phenomenon of loggionisti hooligans, unfortunately, still exists, including in La Scala, where my colleagues have been booed for absolutely no reason. There was a time when a protest from La Scala's audience would have been considered a scandal because it came from listeners who knew what they were doing. Today, however, the protest of the loggionisti is so devoid of any logic that it has become annoying.

"New York has listeners who appreciate the labor of the singers. I have often heard rather poor performances with various problematic moments, but the audience of the Metropolitan is not ruthless towards the singer, appreciating his/her dedication that despite poor health or other problems he/she did not cancel the performance and still went on stage. Their attitude is different, which is very pleasant.

"I received a most pleasing assessment from the New York Times as well. It gave a very positive assessment of my debut as Carmen in the Metropolitan Opera. Even though I was very nervous before going on stage that evening and perhaps performed at a mid level, the review was still very positive – they even compared me to Anna Magnani, which was a pleasant shock for me. That was the biggest complement because I like this actress immensely."

In Europe she is repeatedly asked to recount her pre-success period, those years of study in cold Tbilisi winters that she spent in summer shoes:

"We have always been a poor family and had to make a big sacrifice in order for me to get where I am today. These problems, fortunately, have disappeared. Today, I can wear whatever I like, although I often have no other choice but to dress well because I have to interact in those circles with money and rich people and, unfortunately, they pay a lot of attention to appearances. On the one hand, that hurts me because I grew up in absolute poverty and I primarily paid attention to the personal qualities of people. This is how it remains; in this regard, nothing has changed for me and this will not change."

She does nothing out of ordinary to protect her main instrument – her voice: she lives a healthy life, takes daily vocal lessons and reads specialized literature when preparing for her roles. Her schedule is already full until 2017 and, consequently, she has a great many plans:

"I am going to London soon, to perform Carmen in Covent Garden for the first time. [Giuseppe Verdi's] Il Trovatore and Un Ballo in Maschera are planned in Turin, but most of all I am looking forward to the premiere of Prince Igor [by Alexander Borodin] in the New York Metropolitan Opera, which is scheduled for 6 February. The fifth performance of this work, which will be held on 1 March, will be shown in cinemas worldwide and I am trying hard to ensure that a Tbilisi audience will also be able to watch that."

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